Guardians’ Chris Antonetti On Catching, Shane Bieber Staying Put

In an interview with Jim Bowden and Jim Duquette on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM, Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti flatly rejected the idea that Shane Bieber will be a trade candidate this winter.  “We have every intention of trying to contend next year, and trying to win a World Series.  And, Shane Bieber will be a big part of that for us,” Antonetti said.

Naturally, some gamesmanship could be at play here, and the Guards (at least as a matter of due diligence) would consider any serious offer another team might float for Bieber.  Given Cleveland’s history of trading star players as their arbitration costs rise, the Bieber trade speculation won’t really end until he actually does change teams, or unless he signs an extension.  However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that moving Bieber isn’t on the Guardians’ radar in the near future.

Bieber was arbitration-eligible for the first time last winter, and avoided a hearing by working out a $6MM contract for the 2022 season.  The high number reflected Bieber’s early success, which included All-Star appearances in 2019 and 2021, and the AL Cy Young Award during the shortened 2020 season.

The right-hander kept on rolling through 2022, posting a 2.88 over an even 200 innings, with a 48.2% grounder rate, an elite 4.6% walk rate and an above-average 25% strikeout rate.  While that K% was his lowest since 2018, Bieber seemed to trade strikeouts for extra control, changing up his mix of pitches with great success.  Bieber used his curveball a lot less and his cutter a lot more, with both pitches becoming more effective as a result.

Now projected for a healthy raise to $10.7MM in 2023, Bieber’s salary isn’t really onerous for a Guardians team that doesn’t have much committed to its 2023 or longer-term payroll pictures.  Plus, as Antonetti noted, Cleveland wants to compete for a championship, so it is possible ownership might be willing to even stretch the budget a bit to supplement a title run.

Next winter, it is possible things could change.  Bieber’s third and final arbitration year should be worth well over $15MM if he continues this good form, and he is scheduled to reach free agency in the 2024-25 offseason.  An extension would lock Bieber up in Cleveland for good, yet the Guardians traditionally tend to only extend players early in their careers (though Jose Ramirez’s extension last spring was a very prominent exception to this rule).

Come next winter or possibly even at midseason if the Guardians fell out of contention, a Bieber trade might seem much more feasible.  Waiting another season to really explore a Bieber deal would also give Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff more time to evaluate Bieber’s replacements — as always, the Guards have a wealth of young arms in the pipeline who have already made their MLB debuts, or are on the verge of debuting.  Within the current rotation, Triston McKenzie also had a nice breakout in 2022 and now looks like a front-of-the-rotation starter.

Antonetti also discussed several other topics during the interview, including the Guardians’ needs behind the plate.  Austin Hedges is set to hit free agency, and “catching is an area where we will continue to explore options,” the PBO said.  “If we can find a way to add some offense and add a bat somewhere throughout the lineup, that’s something we’ll pursue as well.”

As much as the Guardians have been linked to the likes of Oakland’s Sean Murphy in trade rumors, it isn’t necessarily clear that Cleveland will look for an external answer at catcher.  Prospect Bo Naylor had a huge season at Double-A and Triple-A in 2022, resulting in a late-season promotion and his first five big league games.  The Guardians have never been shy about trusting young players in big roles, and this trend could continue given how much they like Naylor.

We think he’s got a chance to be a really good catcher on all sides of the game,” Antonetti said.  “Not only really talented offensively…he does an extraordinary job of leading the pitching staff.  He’s so motivated to make an impact with the pitchers that he’s kind taken it upon himself to learn Spanish.  And not just the pitches, but actually learn the language so he can build a rapport and relationships with our Spanish-speaking pitchers.”

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